From Slut to Prostitute, NYTimes Finally Making Online Johns of All of Us

Today the New York Times made the inevitable non-press release press release in regards to their plans to begin to charge for their online content. In the tradition of major companies that make statements like this, they were as vague as possible painting the plan in the broadest of strokes to leave them the wiggle room to work this out in the most profitable way. The Times, same as their peers in the industry, give it away online right now, but they laid out a plan to begin charging, in one form or another, for frequent readers, in early 2011. Though this may seem to be a far off time without specifics plans in place, this stands as a move in our industry coming to terms with the fact that the old news model of the brick and mortar paper has officially fallen to the wayside for an organization that is fluid and agile to deliver premium content on demand, for a premium price.

I wrote about this a while back, the need for the industry to change its ways and stop turning a blind eye to the direction the world today is headed. I have always argued that you cannot give away original content online for free that costs money and man hours to produce. Now a days more people have put down the paper and have picked up their phone, or opened their laptop, to get the information and the stories of the day. It is simply more convenient and truly more breaking news online when you can get an update on an event immediately as opposed to waiting until the next day to find out what happened; people want to know what is ‘happening’, and this is the nut in the case for the internet being the best platform for news reporting.

There are many papers, magazines, and publications that don’t even bother producing a text printed medium, they see and appreciate the low overhead and malleability of an online publication. In an afternoon a few folks in a room can change from top to bottom the entire form and look of a website, and then go get dinner. On a whim any producer of online content can get new content up, or can experiment with new media and story telling styles without having to figure out how it fits in the paper or what kind of work the paginator is going to have to do to make room for advertising. Online news websites and journals allow for us to use video, multimedia, and text, to tell every facet of a story that used to be limited by papyrus; today we can be better journalists with the advent of the net, we just need to get paid to do it.

The Times was headed this way no matter the time frame. NYTimes.com has 17 million visitors a month, by far the largest online readership in the industry, and that being the case, they might be the one website an make this change and begin to charge for their content. I heard a while back that there was a consortium of papers willing to begin charging together, so as to not hurt one another. I am not sure as to the validity of that information now, but the Times is only the first paper to do this and you can look forward to every paper in the country eventually charging in one form or another. It has been a long time coming because you can’t charge for the paper, make people pay for the 3D news, but have the same content, and more in fact, free online; this financial backlash was scripted with a model like this one.

What will they do though? How will it be charged. NYTimes was savvy in releasing no details of any kind. They were about as vague as a Republican presidential candidate, in that they wrote a lot of words, but really said nothing. There is no real plan yet for whether there will be a membership flat fee, a free up to a point system, or premium content charging. I know that I like the ESPN model with their ‘insider’ system with a small monthly fee for specific content, while allowing unlimited browsing of general content. I don’t think the system of membership fee per month, like a newspaper subscription. An all or nothing model will not work, you can browse a NYTimes A1 for free waiting in line for coffee, you should be able to browse their homepage the same way. Micro charging may be legitimate in some form, a per article charge to a credit card on file that you save to the site to pay for your browsing, with a maximum limit. Say, if you were to charge two cents an article with a maximum charge of 4 dollars a week or something, or whatever is equal to subscribing to the paper; that is key, not charging more for online content than paper subscribers pay, because you can’t sway people either way and you don’t want to hurt either revenue stream in print and online.

I am on board with the ESPN model, free basic browsing, and you pay more for the specialty content, but maybe they can go farther. The paper might want to think about embracing social networking and strike a deal with the likes of facebook, flickr, and myspace to work out a way to streamline their news content with the news feed or with their own pages. How better to get some of those major sites by charging a small fee to get my NYTimes updates to my homepage on any of these sites. It is one less stop for the reader, I can now get my news of the world with my news on my friends, and it is such a massive market, the paper might be able to pick up extra subscribers that don’t even look at their site now. Symbiotic in the idea to embrace the fact the online content at these papers can’t be totally free, is the embrace of the social aspect of the web and get in to those built in markets like facebook, where you can help your readership kill two birds with one stone.

The very long shot idea is for subscribers to be able to purchase columns and articles written by specific reporters. Imagine a system where you were able buy articles by your favorite writers like you buy music on iTunes. Since they are focusing on regular readers on the website, then they could charge for specific content by specific journalists. For .99 cents a week you can get exclusive content, editorials, or articles like songs. You can read their current work as well as their greatest hits right to the medium of your choice and follow your most trusted news sources. I submit that if Hunter S. Thompson was still around then he would have been on iTunes and charged weekly for articles and his screed as he put them out. If you could buy Hunter by the article or subscribe by the month I would have a lifetime membership to his work. I know this is unlikely, readers often don’t notice or care who actually writes the articles or shoots the photos; journalism is mostly a fame-less business except amongst those of us in the industry.

Whatever they decide to do with the specifics of charging for this high quality content they need to proceed very carefully. Times will be the litmus test for this new idea, and their folly or success will bring a rise in the tides among industry peers for the better or the worse. With this announcement though, I don’t think they will be the nly paper to begin charging for what is now free. Do not be surprised to see USAToday, the Boston Globe, or the LA Times, adopt a similar timeline and idea. You will see the LA Times charging for its premium celebrity gossip and editorials as well as other content. I am so glad to see this trend happening though. Online content and online journalists and photographers work hard, and their content is excellent. It took the old guard a while to admit that it was raining, the water got to their chest before they admitted they might have a problem, but you can’t blame them, it’s tough to change when you are stuck in the old ways and the internet was a ‘fad’. The old newspaper is an analog relic, and in a digital age it is about time we started charging for that content, since this is the future we have created for ourselves, even if it is just a ‘series of tubes’.

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